Alumni Horizon Award recipient carries commitment to community-building from the basketball court to the classroom

Andrew Parker draws inspiration from the memory of his coach to support all youth.

Scott Lingley - 25 October 2023

Andrew ParkerAlmost a decade into his career as a classroom teacher, Andrew Parker (‘08 BA, ‘14 BEd) has a ready answer when asked what he likes best about the job.

“Conversations and relationships,” Parker says. “My favourite part is to see youngsters grow into themselves.”

It was just such a relationship that he says gave him a much-needed course correction as a high school student in north Edmonton.

“If you don’t have certain resources, it’s easy to slip and fall. I was making poor choices as a teenager, but those choices were rooted in me trying to find myself,” he says. “[Teacher and coach Thom] Elniski helping me find myself and helping me understand I didn’t have to have the same voice, the same ambitions as everyone else — that type of leadership made me choose another path. The change in my life was people encouraging me to find my true voice.”

Inspired by Elniski and by his own brother’s success as a post-secondary student and varsity athlete, Parker began charting a course that would lead him to pursue a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and psychology from the University of Alberta. 

His prominence as a member of the Golden Bears basketball squad led him to follow his dreams as a professional basketball player, which took him to Europe, Brazil, the U.S. and, finally, back to Edmonton. When he decided to retire from pro sports, Parker says he revisited his motivations for pursuing his academic path.

“I had envisioned that the rest of my life would be committed to human beings and to uplifting and supporting and understanding the challenges and opportunities for human beings,” Parker says. “I started off in social work before I played pro, but when I came back, my hero coach Elniski had passed away from cancer, and I recognized my community of northeast Edmonton needed more people like him. So I applied to do my after-degree in education in 2012.”

Mentor, leader, community builder

After completing his BEd, Parker found himself back at his old high school M.E. LaZerte, now as a social studies teacher and basketball coach. Armed with an education degree, a passion for social justice, a dedication to uplifting his community and a still-ferocious slam dunk, he was poised to make an impact that extended well beyond the classroom. 

He had already established himself as a mentor, leader and community builder in 2009 by co-founding the Pride of the North basketball event, a streetball tournament and block party for residents of northeast Edmonton that raised funds for charitable causes including the Stollery Hospital. For this and his other efforts as a coach, mentor, educator and community leader, he was recognized by Avenue Magazine (now Edify) in their 2017 Top 40 Under 40 rankings.

But in 2020, Parker said he felt moved to take his community-building and advocacy for social justice to another level. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Floyd by law enforcement in the U.S. had prompted global anti-racism protests, and Black Lives Matter organizers in Edmonton asked Parker to address a rally at the Alberta legislature. Following his emotional speech, Parker sought out colleagues in his field who could unite around promoting equity and removing obstacles for all students, particularly African Canadian students. With fellow teachers Sarah Adamako-Ansah and Matt Sauer, Parker formed the Black Teachers’ Association (BTA), which has brought together educators and allies to advocate for human rights, develop anti-racism resources, mount Black history events and support the formation of Black students’ associations at schools across Alberta.

“We’ve never used our platform just for the Black community, but for all communities that are desiring a voice,” Parker says. “Before the BTA, we had to wait to speak how we feel about these situations. With our platform, we are able to speak from our own hearts.”

For his commitment to the betterment of his students, his community and the province, Parker will receive the U of A Alumni Horizon Award, recognizing his outstanding achievements early in his career, at the Alumni Awards ceremony on Oct. 25.

The learning journey continues

Despite a busy schedule and prioritizing time with his two young children, Parker has returned to the U of A to pursue his master’s of education in social justice and international studies in order to continue advancing his vision of creating learning spaces that support all students.

“My main areas of research are related to anti-racism, making education more equitable for all, which means a lot of solidarity work — First Nations communities, 2SLGBTQIA communities, south Asian communities, combating Islamophobia, and finding better opportunities for our youth to grow outside the four core subjects,” he says. “I’m looking at how to support people who identify as distinctly different culturally, ethnically, spiritually, and how do we support those groups and make sure those kids don’t feel alienated in school, but liberated.”

Though he’s still on his own learning journey, Parker has gained some wisdom after almost a decade of teaching that he’s willing to pass on to the next generation of educators.

“Show your students how passionate you are about your community, they’ll learn to do the same and in that space true multiculturalism and true anti-racism will happen and it will be organic — not forced, not planned but something we’ve already embedded in our hearts,” Parker says.

“I would tell preservice teachers to lead with your heart,” he adds. “You're not going to be perfect and not every class is going to go how you want but if you love the kids and you love the work, you’ll have a very long career.”